Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Stranger Danger v. Infra Danger

Barack Obama has argued that Americans do not deserve "another election governed by fear" and John McCain promises to talk straight to Americans about the risks we face. But how can we tell if we are getting a really new kind of election in America?

I offer today a simple index by which the degree of change in this election might be measured. Start with the premise (for the arguments, see my book, Governing through Crime) that America between 1968 and 2008 became overly obsessed politically with what might be called "stranger danger", i.e., the threat of malevolent unknown actors out there some where who wait to do us harm. For most the last forty years it has been "criminals" (often racialized as Black or Latino) that lurk out there. Since 9/11 "terrorists" (racialized as swarthy Middle Easterners) have to some extent replaced drug dealers and gang members as the most feared "strangers" (but only to an extent, the other still haunts us).

During the same period we systematically have ignored what might be called "infra danger", i.e., the threat posed by ignoring and underfunding our massive dependence on technical systems that require continuous capital investment. Infra danger came to the surface for a moment during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 when the levee system failed New Orleans, only to be replaced quickly by stranger danger as the media spread false reports of rampant violent crime. In January of this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York, along with Governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, and Edward Rendell of Pennsylvania, joined in a task force aimed to publicizing infra danger (read Ray Rivera's reporting in the NYTimes).

So let me offer a slightly different hope than Senator Obama. Americans do not deserve another election governed by fear (of strangers). We might deserve an election focused on the risks we face from our own failures of governance (like infra structure). So here is the test. When we add up the sound bytes about danger and risk produced by both campaigns and assign them to either the "stranger danger" or the "infra danger" column, how big will the margin for stranger danger be? It is too much to hope for parity or more attention to infra danger, but if the two are even close, we will have had a different kind of election.

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